Monday, 29 February 2016

Hosting a 2nd birthday party: do you go traditional, modern or lazy?

Yesterday was Duckling's 2nd birthday, and as is required, we held a little party for him. Not too many people: just me and Drake, both sets of grandparents, my sister, brother-in-law and his cousin Gosling. Easy peasy, right?

Well I suppose in the grand scheme of things it wasn't really too much of a challenge. In the battleground of my mind however, it was all out war. The problem is, as much as I want to be a cool, tech-savvy, environmentally considerate 21st century feminist, years of patriarchal programming has burnt the 1950s housewife mantra "UNLESS YOU DO EVERYTHING YOURSELF, PERFECTLY, FROM SCRATCH, YOU ARE A FAILURE AS A WOMAN AND MOTHER" into my brain. Also, unfortunately I'm a bit lazy time poor. So this trio of competing factors led to much indecision when trying to decide how best to manage the toddler birthday party experience:

1950s me: Nice wooden toys with wheels, well made, not too many, antique car-themed wrapping paper and curly bows, presented in a bag with Duckling's name on.
21st Century me: Gender-neutral (erring on the more 'girly', just to make a point), quirky, second-hand items ordered on eBay (nothing 'branded'), unwrapped to save the planet.
Lazy me: can't we just give him some Pom Bears (it's all he's actually asked for) and leave the grandparents to buy the cool stuff?
Victor?: None of them really. He got a brand new Peppa Pig bathtime boat, some (new) jigsaws, (new) clothes and a mini IKEA circus tent (new) from us, plus a slide and a scooter ("dooter") from the grandparents. All our gifts were wrapped (very badly) in tissue paper as I couldn't find any non-pink and frilly stuff in the five minutes I had in Paperchase on my way home from work. So while 1950s Housewife does get one point for the presents actually being wrapped this year, 21st Century Mum also scores for the gender-neutral nature of the toys, as evidenced by the fact that he fought extensively over every single one with his Cousin Gosling, a girl. "NO Gosling! Me dooter! Mine! MINE!". Oh and he did get Pom Bears too...

1950s me: A beautiful sugar craft rendition of an orange Duplo block, complete with individual mini Victoria sponges for the nobbly bits on top (what are those called?), all whipped up in an hour or two on Saturday evening.
21st Century me: Wonder if I could I could construct an entire party cake by scaling up my no-added-sugar baby led weaning banana muffin recipe?
Lazy me: Do they still do Colin the Caterpillar cakes in Marks?
Victor ?: 1950s me. Ish. It took me seven hours. The shape, to be fair, was vaguely reminiscent of a Duplo block, but despite half a bottle of yellow food colouring going into the icing mix, the colour was more of a weird psychedelic pink than orange. I ran out of time to do the mini Victoria sponges on top, so they were just lumps of leftover cake covered in very uneven icing, and because my oven bakes everything at 200oC regardless of what temperature you set it to, the cake had a massive burnt dome on top, which caused the finished article to be slightly less than perfectly cuboid... Basically, it looked like a Duplo block following an encounter with bottle of Pepto Bismol and blow torch. But it tasted quite nice, and it had sufficient structural integrity to support a candle, so Duckling got to do the blowing out bit. That's all that really matters, right?

1950s me: Homemade everything, down to the flaky pastry and filling for the sausage rolls.
21st Century me: hummus, unsalted popcorn, bean and quinoa salad, chia seed pudding...
Lazy me: Everything ordered online, including the carrot sticks.
Victor?: Lazy me, all the way. I make no apologies - Waitrose caters waaay better than I ever could. Although I did cut up my own carrot and cucumber batons. Actually, I lie, Drake did them as I was too busy swearing at the pink cake.

1950s me: Bunting, banners, birthday confetti, party napkins, party bags and a bunch of bobbing "2 today" balloons outside the front door.
21st Century me: recycled paper chains, kids party classics streaming via the Apple TV, funky illuminations and a PowerPoint loop of family photos playing in the background.
Lazy me: A second-hand helium balloon passed on by one of my NCT friends whose son turned two last week.
Victor?: A mish mash. The second-hand balloon was very much in evidence, though I also found a Happy Birthday banner, napkins and some LED balloons in Paperchase (which only really glowed noticeably once we shut the curtains and turned out all the lights). The confetti was deemed a choking hazard, I couldn't get the b**tard Apple TV to work, and the PowerPoint and paper chains were just too much to organise in the six and a half minutes I had between cake completion and first guest arrival.  (Incidentally, I'm going to have to start telling Drake's parents to arrive half an hour later than everyone else. Even when travelling after lunch on a mild, sunny Sunday with no reported traffic incidents, they leave 90 minutes to make a 50 minute journey and consequently get here massively inconveniently early.  As an eternally late person, this drives me bloody bananas.)

In some respects, I am quite glad that I have such a schizophrenic approach to party planning.  My perfectionist streak balances out my lazy arse one, and both rein in my tedious desire to be some kind of uber right-on enviro-feminist (which let's face it, is bound to piss everyone else off, if only because a party is not a party without hyperactive sugar rushes and a bin bag full of carelessly discarded wrapping paper). Plus, it's not about me, it's about Duckling, and by next year he'll be much more able to articulate his desires. Still, for the sanity all concerned, I might try to dial down the cake ambitions in exchange for a slightly less random set of decorations and maybe a homemade potato salad.  Organic potatoes and homegrown herbs optional.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Places past

If I could make a map
Of all the places I have been
And colour the most visited
A vivid shade of green

Our house would be a jungle
My office emerald sea
My Mum's a wood in summer
Sainsbury's a squashed pea

But also on the map
Would be colours fading fast
Corners that were once much loved
Now firmly in my past

These are all the places
I will never stand again
Familiar houses, shops and streets
Now only in my brain

Some are lost forever
Torn down or left to rot
Or residents I knew replaced
By others I do not

The swing in Oma's garden
Where many hours I spent
Long rusted then paved over
For a new development

My Nanna's tiny kitchen
Formica, cork and glass
Someone else now washing up
Since my Nanna passed

Every school and college
Here and overseas
Classrooms, halls and playgrounds
Now distant memories

The playhouse in our garden
Our little home outdoors
Demolished once the roof blew off
And ivy grew up through the floors

My old Guide hut, my drama club
All those dank church halls
I have no reason, now I'm grown
To visit them at all

In every place I linger
I try to leave a sign
A note, a date, a word or two
A mark in space and time

So though it makes my wistful
To recall my haunts of youth
It helps to know that "I woz there"
And left a little proof.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Girl Power and that godawful Virgin Media ad

There is an advert on TV at the moment for a new Virgin Media broadband service that features a mother showing her daughter a series of YouTube clips of various inspirational women. I recognise the intended message of the ad - that high speed broadband can help girls to access content that is going to spur them on to greatness - and that's all very feminist and admirable, if obviously totally inaccurate for 99.9% of the tweenage and teenage population ("OMG! That cat in trousers is like totally cray cray!"). Unfortunately it still irritates the crap out of me.

Lack of believability aside, it has all the subtlety of Paloma Faith's fashion sense, who, incidentally appears in the ad as one such apparently inspiring women (I mean she's quirky and outspoken, but I suspect she's mainly in it because she agreed to wink at the camera for money). From the faux, 'wide-eyed wonderment' (psychotic?) look on the girl's face, to the choice of music (This Girl is On Fire), to the "Women who rock" search term they use to find more videos, the whole thing just screams, "Look at us being all feminist even though people are actually far more likely to use the internet to watch plasticated porn stars than successful ladies doing impressive stuff.  Aren't we all edgy?!" Err, no. Girl Power is great and all but, well, it's rather 1996. It could be that Virgin Media are trying to counteract the somewhat less PC adverts of sister company Virgin Atlantic. Who knows frankly. Whatever the thinking behind the advert, I am pretty sure we should be beyond this level of obviousness. The fact that this advert so blatantly signposts its Right On message just proves how much of a novelty too many still consider the whole "female empowerment" thing to be, and I just find that intensely depressing.

Given that we have not yet achieved true equality between men and women, a conscious effort to boost the status of women in society and flag up positive role models remains essential (though it's probably more effective when done for non-commercial "let's sell some Broadband" purposes). We have to keep plugging away, because, as many more intellectual types than me would argue, the "patriarchy", consciously or unconsciously, have too much invested in keeping women subjugated to ever willingly relinquish their more dominant, controlling position. But change doesn't just come from shouty, big ticket campaigns. It happens through quite subtle shifts in the way women are portrayed in the media and represented in wider public discourse too. These changes are undoubtedly influenced by wider feminist movements (and a greater involvement of women in the public sphere), but they're probably more influential for the average (wo)man on the street, because they're much more accessible and mundane and less overtly political. Take for example the portrayal of women in film and TV as a human beings rather than simply "Mum" or "Wife" or "Bitch" or "Slave to her romantic feelings" or "Tough woman acting like a man in a man's world because who would be interested in a woman otherwise?". There are some good recent examples out there.  Happy Valley comes to mind (awesomely good if a bit grim), as does the latest Star Wars film. Totally contrasting genres, but both feature three dimensional women who just get on with things (dealing with parental grief and the policing of smack heads / fighting with the Resistance against the evil First Order), and in doing so, are kind of inspirational.

It can be done well on an advertising front too. I loved the This Girl Can ad campaign by Sport England last year, that portrayed dozens of women of all shapes and sizes just getting on with the business of staying fit and healthy. A public health rather than commercial advert admittedly, but it was simple, effective, non-preachy and even though I watched it as a cynical "feminist", it made me want to get up, put my running kit on and wobble down the road listening to Get Your Freak On by Missy Elliot. The inspiration came not from famous, glamourous ladies, but from ordinary lasses, and in some ways I think that's actually more powerful.

So I'm afraid Virgin Media, you don't get a neatly nail polished (yeah right!) thumbs up from me. I admire the sentiment, but not the clumsy execution. Next time, why not depict a Mum showing her son videos of inspirational women? That WOULD be a bit more 2016. In fact, I think I might go show Duckling some clips of Aung San Suu Kyi right this very minute. Failing that, Peppa Pig is kind of a feisty, strong young woman, isn't she? I knew there was a reason I let him watch 27 episodes per day.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Health anxiety strikes again

Just for a change, I am going through a not especially fun time at the moment (this blog isn't just a moan outlet, honestly!). About a week before Christmas, I had a day or two of feeling really nauseous and bloated, with an uncomfortable stomach.  I put it down to a bug, as my Mum, sister and Drake all seemed to get the same thing too. We all recovered quickly and I enjoyed Christmas dinner, but my symptoms mysteriously returned a couple of days later and for a few weeks I felt mildly nauseous on and off and lacking any appetite.  Then the "loose motions" started (sorry if too much info). Just mornings, and sometimes evenings mostly,  with random twinges of pain around my abdomen, until yesterday when I felt properly awful and was on and off the loo most of the day.

The doctor (to whom I shall return tomorrow requesting further investigation) has called it as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, given that my blood tests and stool tests were normal.  I, being a bit of a worrier and obsessive Googler, have variously diagnosed myself with an ulcer, low stomach acid, excess stomach acid, parasites, Crohn's Disease, and cancer (a friend, my age, died of bowel cancer last year, so I am a little paranoid). What I do know for certain is that, not for the first time, I have a bad case of health anxiety.

I think the doctor is right and my problem almost certainly is IBS (it's very common, and there is family history), probably triggered by the mild virus I had and exacerbated by the stress of a new job, months of sleep deprivation and two hospital stays with Duckling in the space of six weeks. I'm pretty sure that giving up breastfeeding may have a lot to do with it too. I have not yet fully stopped,  but we're down to evenings and mornings only now, and it's sent my hormones into a tail spin - hot flushes, minor panic attacks, depression, weird sense of smell and taste, plus my first period in over two and a half years, which has been strangely familiar and alien at the same time.  I am a little sensitive to hormonal changes at the best of times (I will leave the story of my tumultuous time on The Pill for another post) so with everything else going on, I'm not that surprised that I'm suffering.  I just wish I wasn't, and that I could rationalise my way out of feeling so anxious about it all (which I'm sure is just making things ten times worse).

Poor Drake has seen me like this before (most famously on our first holiday together when I became convinced I had lymphoma and was slowly dying.  I didn't and I wasn't.) but still finds it hard to know how to help me. I had a bit of a sob on his shoulder yesterday along the lines of "what if this is actually something really serious and I leave you and Duckling behind???"  and then, "Even if it is just IBS, what if I end up feeling like I did today every day of the week?  How am I going to live a normal life when I can't be more than ten foot from a toilet...?!"  The answer to the latter question was discovered today in the form of Imodium - it got me through work without a hiccup, which is just as well as a minor blocked toilet tsunami had put all the bogs out of action on our floor.  Not my fault, honest guv.

On the bright side though, I've lost half a stone, so am finally back (and actually a bit below) my pre-baby weight.  Every cloud...  Sort of.

I have no idea where this whole experience is going to take me.  I am strongly hoping I'll be able to look back in a few months time, when I've been properly prodded and poked and I'm feeling 100% again, and be able to say "Well that was literally a bit shit wasn't it?!"  For now, I just have to stay calm, keep smiling and try not to get suckered into too many snake oil therapies online.  "Probiotic papaya enzymes you say?  Give me 50!"